Vox Lux (2018)

This review starts with a synopsis that describes the main plot. However, near the end of the article I discuss one significant spoiler – I’ve signposted this and I recommend you don’t read these closing paragraphs until after you’ve watched the film. Deal?

Vox Lux is a fascinating film about the cultural obsessions of the 21st century. It centres around Celeste Montgomery, a fictional American pop star played in her youth by Raffey Cassidy and later by Natalia Portman. I was completely blown away by the film, and it left me with a lot to contemplate.

Aged thirteen, Celeste was a victim of a horrific high-school mass shooting in her hometown of New Brighton, she almost died but survived with a scar on her neck. As she recovers in hospital, she writes a song with her elder sister Ellie (Stacy Martin) ‘Wrapped Up‘, a prayerful devotion to ‘turn the light on’ and without that light she “would have been torn to shreds”. The sisters perform it affectingly, simple piano and voice, at a community church memorial service. Celeste is noticed by a music business manager (a sleazy but well-meaning Jude Law), who signs her up. The song becomes a hit and, as Willem Dafoe’s sardonic voiceover notes, with ‘I’ changed to ‘we’, it becomes a healing anthem for the nation. A star is born.

Despite her saintly upbringing, Celeste loses her innocence in a miasma of wild parties during recording sessions in Stockholm and at a video shoot in LA. She loses her virginity to a death metal singer whom, she tenderly observes, plays the same kind of music that her school shooter listened to. She recruits publicist Josie (Jennifer Ehle) who defines her image and gets her a choreographer, all the while sister Ellie tags along, increasingly marginalised in the wake of Celeste’s meteoric success.

A star is born – Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) filming her first music video

Almost an hour in, the film suddenly jumps to 2017, to another terror attack this time on a tourist beach in Croatia where four black-clad gunmen open fire, capturing the massacre with a phone. The video goes viral. The gunmen are disguised with sequined masks that echo a costume in one of Celeste’s early videos.

Celeste is older now, a drink and drug addict she has become a monster, played with relish by Natalie Portman. She is preparing for a come-back tour, the first concert is coincidentally scheduled for the night after the beach shooting, and her connection to the attack brings probing and unwanted press attention. Celeste is now a mega-star and her reputation amongst her fans undented, despite a recent drink driving incident where she drank herself literally blind and crushed a woman’s leg in an accident, followed by a racist tirade and out-of-court settlement. She’s become jaded, self-absorbed and narcissistic, a victim of the celebrity machine. She maintains the same entourage, including her manager and publicist, but they have become more cynical.

Celeste (Natalie Portman) giving a car-crash press conference, for a moment she’s terrified

Celeste now has a daughter Albertine, also played by Raffey Cassidy, who brought up by her aunt Ellie. They pair, who will attend the New Brighton concert, seem resigned to Celeste’s grotesque abusiveness. The film follows Celeste in the day leading up to and including that evening’s concert.

Celeste (Natalie Portman) performs for her fans

Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Celeste is no-holds-barred. Summoning the same intensity that she had in Black Swan, she’s an emotional wreck, bent on self-destruction, fragile and unstable, a walking ego. The camera spins around her as she volleys from arrogance to hysterics, from crushing tears to callous cruelty. She’s driven, not by her music or her art, but by fame and an egotistical sense of obligation to her fans, she’s “there for them”. Portman is captivating, and the only false note perhaps is an affected working-class ‘New Yawk’ accent that presumably is meant to convey crass authenticity, but instead threatens to destabilise the performance, much as Portman’s accent did in Jacqui. It’s a fine line and she just about gets away with it, and I confess it didn’t jar as much for me on second viewing. It’s a tour-de-force performance of ugly vanity and tacky vacuity.

Actor Raffey Cassidy stands out in a dual role, playing both the young Celeste in the first half of the film, and Celeste’s daughter in the latter part, a challenging feat for any actor let alone someone so young. She is quietly exception in this, as she was as the daughter in The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Cassidy said she considered the two parts as separate movies; the film was shot chronologically, and this helped her immensely when separating the two characters.

Stacy Martin as Ellie and Raffey Cassidy as Celeste

By contrast, Stacy Martin plays Celeste’s older sister Ellie in both halves of the film; her performance is very believable despite in real life being almost ten years younger than her screen sister Natalia Portman. It’s a subtle and understated role, although crucial as a defining counterpoint to the character of Celeste. In the Q&A, Martin said that she played the character as anonymously as possible, to be as much in the background as possible without being out of shot. On second viewing I noticed that a lot more, there she is, quietly sitting cross-legged at the side of the room while young Celeste is learning her first choreography. And again, hidden amongst the bustle of Celeste’s entourage. As part of her research she disappeared down internet rabbit warrens, looking for individuals who recur in the background of celebrity photographs, constantly present yet anonymous, fascinated by their body language and unassuming demeanour.

However, as muted as the role is, Ellie is crucial – she accompanies Celeste in her early career and in a subtle way helps create the monster by introducing young Celeste to the more hedonistic aspects of life and enabling her behaviour. On the other hand, she takes the thankless burden of bringing up Celeste’s daughter and even co-writes many of the songs. Although Celeste finds in her manager a drug-binge conspirator, it’s Ellie who provides the deepest support and unassuming solace in Celeste’s most fragile moments.

Ellie (Stacy Martin) is the only one who can truly comfort her younger sister Celeste (Natalie Portman)

This is a film about Big Themes, taking on the 21st Century as it’s subject and contrasting the pop stardom and acts of terror. It could easily be crass and obvious, but with director Brady Corbet asking more questions than answering, the film on the whole avoids being too obvious or pretentious.

Corbet wanted to reference many of the most significant events of the 21st century. The opening school massacre is set in 1999, the same year as Columbine, and defines Celeste in much the same way as Corbet sees it as a defining moment for our times. The sequence is tense and upsetting. The film opens literally with a bang, as birds are disturbed from their tree branch by the sound of gunshots in a suburban street, the sound we later learn is of the perpetrator killing his parents before his school killing spree. We then something being prepared, car headlights momentarily illuminating a pitch-black night. This is an unsettling build-up to the massacre itself, which is depicted with awful naturalism. Amidst the shooting, it’s Celeste who calmly begs the boy to let the others go, while the other children are screaming in panicked terror. The coldness of the sequence, and the horror when the armed police discover the blood-soaked bodies is truly disturbing and reminiscent of Gus van Sant’s similarly-themed Elephant.

The opening high school massacre echoes Columbine, which took place at the dawn of the millennium.

Terrorism is defining and central. Later, the 9/11 plane crashes coincide with Celeste’s new-found hedonism, and it’s even implied that her parents might have been killed in the attacks. Establishing shots in New York scenes prominently feature the twin-towers in the pre-2001 scenes, and then architect David Child’s replacement Freedom Tower later in the movie. The fictional Croatia beach massacre, literally central to the film, echo the Tunisian attacks of 2015. The strong implication is that Celeste has been defined by these violent events, much as the 21st century has been, and she constantly wears a band around her neck to both disguise her wounds and symbolise them.

She also embodies the crass superficiality of celebrity culture – her name ‘Celeste’ is on-the-nose – but it’s an evolution. Initially, she is a sympathetic if unexceptional child, and her success is borne from her innocent response to tragedy. Both her manager and publicist are optimistic and support Celeste’s dreams. It’s only gradually that her success and exposure cause her metamorphosis into a superficial hollowed-out monster. Defined by the school attack at the dawn of the millennium, she is a child of the 21st century.

Vox Lux successfully comments on the crass sensationalism that defines today’s culture, a world where celebrity scandal and terrorist atrocity get equal media billing. And rarely outstay their very brief tenure before the next headline grabs our shortened and numbed attention span.

Celeste (Natalie Portman) has become a shallow ugly victim of her celebrity

A film about a pop star, music features prominently, and it’s a strange but winning juxtaposition of musician Scott Walker’s score and songwriter Sia’s pop music. Walker is a fascinating choice, his eerie strings and choir compositions set an unnerving tone, and occasionally echo and distort the melodies of Celeste’s pop tunes. Of course, Scott Walker himself was a heartthrob pop star in the sixties before turning his back on the celebrity and evolving into a more baroque and avant garde musician, famously reclusive up to his very recent death.

Sia’s pop songs are more prominent, of course, sung both by Cassidy and Portman on the soundtrack. There’s been some speculation that Vox Lux director Corbet hates pop music, but he said that wasn’t the case. He wanted the songs to be good, and deliberately sought out one of the few very successful pop stars who sings her own material. Some of the songs were written specifically for the movie and have lyrics relevant to the themes, others were drawn from earlier unused demos.

I didn’t know much about Sia before, but I gather she’s also a musician who has an uncomfortable relationship with celebrity, taking to performing in an oversized wig to hide her face. Interestingly, I found a Sia quote where she recalls being in tears having learned that a close friend has been diagnosed with cancer, and her revulsion at that moment when she is approached by a fan for a photo. There’s a very similar moment in Vox Lux and I wonder if Corbet took inspiration from both of his composers’ double-edged experiences of fame.

A still from Celeste’s (Raffey Cassidy) music video for her song ‘Hologram’, the sequined masks would be re-appropiated by the beach terrorists

The film has a formal structure, complete with chapter headings:

  • ‘Prologue’ set in 1999 depicting the school shooting that defined Celeste, and lasting around ten minutes
  • ‘Genesis’ set in 2000-2001 showing young Celeste’s rise to fame, taking us to midway through the film
  • ‘Re-genesis’, a leap to 2017 with Natalie Portman’s troubled Celeste preparing for the start of her come-back concert.
  • ‘Finale’, the concert itself.

Corbet noted that the classically styled title cards and mildly preposterous titles were a knowing contrast to Celeste’s self-importance. Interestingly, in place of a date I noticed that the ‘finale’ title card states ‘XXI’, presumably a reference to the 21st century, a central theme of the film.

The acts of terrorism are also carefully placed, the school shooting at the very start, and the beach massacre precisely mid-way through, just before we meet Natalie Portman’s Celeste. The symmetry of the film’s structure subtly suggests the potential for a third violent closing act. The film is also book-ended at start and close with extended rolling credits, unusually flowing from bottom to top of screen. The opening credits are accompanied by Scott Walker’s eerie score as unsettled by the violence we watch the convoy of ambulances rushing the school victims to hospital. The closing credits roll in ambiguous silence.

The terrorists prepare for the beach massacre

Befitting a film about celebrity and image, the film uses fashion to striking effect. Initially understated, Celeste costumes become more garish and tacky as her pop star persona grows. The sequined masks used in early music video Hologram are distinctive enough to have been adopted by the beach shooting perpetrators, and by the end Natalie Portman’s metallic jackets, exaggerated fur-lined shoulder pads and sparkly bodysuits are only slightly more absurd than the pop star costumes that they satirise; Corbet was keen that they were believable, no matter how crass.

Similarly, the cinematography and production design grow increasingly garish as the film progresses, from the chillingly naturalistic school shooting, to the frenetic camerawork and occasional wild sped-up super-8 montages, to the stylised concert lighting and movement.

Willem Dafoe’s voiceover is a nice touch adding a layer of detached cynicism. His growly sardonic tone lends an irony to his wry narration, emphasising the film’s dark satire. And make no mistake, this is intended to be a very dark satire indeed.

Director Brady Corbet and actors Raffey Cassidy and Stacy Martin at a preview of Vox Lux on 23rd April 2019 at Curzon Mayfair, London

The direction is both immediate and distancing, the performances captivating and the script ambitious. At the Q&A, director Brady Corbet said he was influenced by British director Nic Roeg, and in particular his 1980s trilogy of Bad Timing, Eureka and Insignificance. Interesting choice of titles, as these as intellectual, distancing, morally ambiguous and opaque movies were usually brushed over in the obituaries when Roeg died last November and are only now just beginning to be critically reappraised. He also named Jonathan Demme as an influence, and Vox Lux‘s credits include a dedication to the man who is equally regarded as a great director of feature films and pop concert movies. This is Corbet’s second feature, I have yet to see his debut, The Childhood of a Leader. However, he cut his teeth acting in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (which I disliked) and as cartoon psychopath Peter in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games and I’m sure he picked up an affinity for these challenging and thoughtful directors.

Spoiler alert:

Just as much as Corbet refrains from signalling the film’s real theme until the end credits – where the film’s subtitle is revealed as ‘a twenty-first century portrait’ – similarly the last few minutes include a crucial reveal that turns the film upside down. The finale concert sequence is impressively bold, we see Celeste’s performance in the style of a pop concert movie, choreography, lighting and all. It’s all about the music, and we see not one, or two but three full songs, and this puzzling indulgence began to test my patience. Only then does Dafoe’s voiceover reveal that immediately after the accident Celeste confided to her sister that she had entered a Faustian pact with Devil to save her life.

Celeste’s pop star performance

Now some of the details make more sense. In the hospital bed, we had seen a tearful Celeste tells her sister she thinks she’s done something terrible, but it’s a passing moment. Her recurring dream of a near-death endless tunnel, exploited as music video imagery, now have a new relevance, as does her sudden switch from angelic Christian teenager to hedonist egoist. Asked by the press for a response to the beach massacre, Celeste presumes the perpetrators had religious intent and proclaims that while she used to be religious, now she herself is the new faith and challenges the terrorists to worship at her concert. Most subtle of all, the song that made her famous now takes a new meaning as celebrating that satanic pact. Just listen again to Wrapped Up and you’ll see what I mean (this time the link is to a video of Natalie Portman’s version, in contrast to the plaintive original linked earlier).

It’s a skilful and bold directorial coup, and its set-up was carefully crafted. What’s more, its last-minute reveal has a sinister undertone. Part of the deal echoed the lyrics of Blue Suede Shoes: “one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready and then we go”. On the way to the concert, Celeste, who has distracted herself with a drug binge, rushes out of the van to a beach to kneel and pray. Does she know her Faustian contract is about to expire? Was the monster Celeste became the price she paid for that deal? Back to the concert, and the end of Celeste’s fourth song in the set, the film abruptly stops and the credits roll in ominous silence. As the cliches go, the devil always gets his dues and he has the best tunes.

A distraught Celeste is compelled to pray on the beach with daughter Albertine (Raffey Cassidy) before her big night

Vox Lux is pretty unique – I’ve seen it twice now and found it fascinating both times. It asks a lot of questions and a major topic is the media-saturation of attention seeking sensationalism. If we ignored it, it wouldn’t exist. Portman’s character is deliberately shallow, self-absorbed and crass, the industry and her personal experiences have both created and destroyed her. It also takes on high school shootings and 9/11 and is intended to be a horror story about the 21st century – atrocities and celebrities sit next to each other.

Vox Lux is released in the UK on 3rd May

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